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The Harvey factor?

Times Staff Writer

IN just seven months, Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig did what some designers spend a lifetime dreaming of: They dressed Renee Zellweger for a stroll down the red carpet, at the London premiere of “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.”

Two months later, Cate Blanchett followed, in a golden, sari-inspired frock at the Rome premiere of “The Aviator.” Then the stars really started piling up: Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz and, last month, their biggest coup so far -- Felicity Huffman, who picked up her best actress Golden Globe award in a flowing white gown that they designed.

Now that gown, with its silver beaded straps and hundreds of delicate gathers, hangs ingloriously from a pipe rack in a frenzied fourth-floor meatpacking district studio. Forget about dry cleaning. That it is still marked with makeup and perspiration stains and not pristinely tucked away in a tissue-paper vault attests to the success, the distractions and the work ahead for its creators.

This week, Chapman and Craig, two 29-year-olds from London, will make their New York Fashion Week debut. Their line, Marchesa, will be shown tonight at a swanky party in the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, and before a single dress has been presented, or a champagne corked popped, the line has been bought by Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus (of course, it will be sold in the Beverly Hills store).

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Marchesa’s breathtaking success has the fashion world talking -- and rolling its eyes too. Just how much of that success, observers wonder, is due to the Harvey Factor? Harvey is Harvey Weinstein, the 53-year-old Hollywood mogul and boyfriend of Chapman. And the boss of many of those actresses that Chapman and Craig have dressed.

It’s the kind of question that pops up in any industry: How much is success owed to who you know versus what you know? Just recently, Zac Posen rose to fame on his friendships with the crowd of hip downtown girls, such as Stella Schnabel and Claire Danes. Even Diane von Furstenberg might not be where she is without her first husband, Prince Egon von Furstenberg.

Chapman isn’t very much bothered by the skeptics and tends to laugh them off.

“It’s all right, you know. It’s fine,” she says. “If anybody looks at how Harvey dresses, they realize he doesn’t have terribly much to do with designing.”

For now, days before their fashion coming-out party, they are focused on finishing the new dresses, some of which were cut from embroidered antique kimonos or from Craig’s elaborate, Asian-inspired textile designs. As a dozen seamstresses whir at sewing machines, dip fabric in hot pots of dye or try to coax Chapman’s agoraphobic dog outside, the designers eagerly show off their collections.

They have divided Marchesa into three divisions: the $800 to $1,200 Marchesa Notte, the $2,400 to $3,900 Marchesa Designer and the custom-made, five-figure celebrity creations. In each collection, there are flowing, toga-like gowns that drape from one shoulder to the ground, gold lace blouson dresses, lavender goddess gowns and sleek, fitted strapless gowns destined for cocktail parties.

Viewed up close, the dresses pack in the kind of shimmering detail that photographs well. They are so laden with metallic sequins and thread that many are quite heavy. Inside, they’re engineered with linings and panels and leaded weights that keep hems breeze-resistant.

Finally, Craig brings a deconstructed dress into the studio.

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Aha!

If the Harvey Factor is Secret Weapon No. 1, then the duo’s signature linings are Secret Weapon No. 2. Craig and Chapman have created a knee-length corset that anchors their dresses to the body.

Running from underarm to lower thigh, a wide band of powerful stretch net hugs the body. In front and back, corset boning shapes the waist and torso, taking a turn at just the right places to cinch a sexy waist. Another thick corset bone flattens the stomach.

So that’s how some women look so good on the red carpet -- most Marchesa dresses have these iron-clad foundations. In November, Huffman wore a cocktail dress to the premiere of “Transamerica” in New York. Johansson wore a short white number to the premiere of “The Island.” Penelope Cruz has worn Marchesa gowns at three high-profile events. Model and recent second-time mother Claudia Schiffer wears the gowns to gala events, not a bulge in sight.

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Photos of celebrities in Marchesa dresses line the walls of their studio, which is cluttered with shoes, fabric and people in preparation for their Rainbow Room party courtesy of Bergdorf Goodman.

“It’s such an opportunity,” Chapman says. “We couldn’t turn it down.”

The event was to have taken place on a Bergdorf’s sales floor, but the invitation list swelled to such a point that they’re now commandeering the Rainbow Room.

The romantic coupling is just over a year old but continues to fascinate Hollywood watchers. Weinstein, recently divorced, is known for being tough, foul-mouthed and controlling. Chapman is a high-energy, slightly freckled wraith with gravity-defying cheekbones and flowing dark hair and light eyes. Co-designer Craig is an equally stunning beauty who tends toward exotic fabrics and upswept hairdos.

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Chapman has added costume designer to a resume that also includes model and actress (yes, she’s had parts in Weinstein projects and small roles in “Match Point,” “Shanghai Knights” and “Bride & Prejudice”). Craig is a bona fide textile designer, having freelanced print and embroidery designs for Kenzo, Cacharel, Calvin Klein and Dolce & Gabbana.

One might assume that Weinstein is paying the bills, but that honor fell to restaurateur Giuseppe Cipriani, the boyfriend of one of the designers’ model acquaintances. Competitors complain that Marchesa dresses are worn on the red carpet because the stars -- and their agents, managers and lawyers -- need to please the powerful Weinstein, who, along with his brother, has just started his own film company. Say the word “Marchesa” and publicists groan. The New York Post’s Page Six gossip column even sniped that a lunch between Chapman, Weinstein and Vogue’s Anna Wintour helped smooth the way for a full-page feature in the magazine.

Kevan Hall, a Los Angeles designer well known for his classic, glamorous gowns who frequently dresses Huffman, had submitted sketches for her Globes appearance. He only recently heard about Marchesa’s powerful Hollywood connections.

“So there you have it,” Hall said. “I say no more.” (When she won her Golden Globe for the film “Transamerica,” Weinstein was among those she thanked.)

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Still, he’s submitting sketches for Huffman to consider for the Oscars, where she is again nominated.

Younger designers desperately need the reflected glory of dressing a star. Jonathan Saunders, a London contemporary of Chapman and Craig, visited Los Angeles recently, with the hopes of putting one of his dresses on a Globe nominee. Saunders, who’s the darling of the London fashion scene, had no takers.

“It’s the industry, isn’t it?” says Saunders of Marchesa’s Hollywood connections. “These things have happened before and they’ll always happen.”

Celebrity stylists refused to speak on the record about Marchesa. But off the record, their comments were lukewarm. One said: “I’d give them a 6 out of 10.” Some say the gowns are too fussy and the copious gathers can overwhelm petite stars such as Cruz. Even so, some of the same stylists plan to look at the line for clients, in part because the gowns generate press in the fashion and gossip columns.

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To be sure, the designs themselves have admirers too.

“Their designs are lovely,” says Claire Breen Melwani, a young British eveningwear designer for the label Kumari. “If your designs are horrible, no one is going to wear them. No one wants to look ugly to do someone a favor.

“I would say to a lot of young designers, ‘Use whatever connections you have. Whether you like it or not, it makes a difference.’ ”


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